What’s So Wrong With VAR Anyway?

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VAR screen shows “Decision: NO GOAL” as Sadio Mané sees his clearly offside effort ruled out against Brighton & Hove Albion.
VAR screen shows “Decision: NO GOAL” as Sadio Mané sees his clearly offside effort ruled out against Brighton & Hove Albion. | Photo by Neil Hall – Pool/Getty Images

Do we hate VAR just because it’s “harmed” Liverpool, or has it actually “killing” the game we love?

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system was implemented to make the officiating more correct through the use of technology (crosshair measurements for offside and encroachment, replay reviews for red card fouls and penalties) to make sure that center officials — who are only human, after all — have the best possible chance of making the right decision on the day.

While outcry often comes after one’s team has been negatively affected by calls made using the video review system, chants of “F*ck V-A-R” from back when fans were in stadiums have been heard in most — if not all — Premier League grounds, suggesting that as much as criticism is termed as “selfish” it might be more universal than many would like to think in the moment.

VAR is often critiqued. But where does the criticism come from? Do all fans who hate VAR hate the same thing?

After yet another weekend of a lot yelling about VAR online and in newspapers, I look to delve into the nebulous VAR critiques to figure out what, exactly, has gone wrong. I suggest that perhaps it’s not issues of injustice for each team at all, but rather that fans feel aggrieved by how the use of technology has changed so many parts of the game (only some of which I can touch on here).

First of all, let’s have a look at how VAR impacts how goals are scored.

Do We Actually Want More Penalties?

In a recent episode of The Athletic’s Football Clichés podcast, Adam Hurrey, Charlie Eccleshare and Katie Whyatt sit to discuss “The Art of the Penalty Kick” — a topic chosen in part because at the time of recording pens were being awarded at the rate of 0.53 per match in the Premier League.

Loads of penalties is not necessarily a VAR-specific issue, of course: the most penalties were awarded in the 2006/07 Premier League season (112), at a rate of 0.30 per match. The first VAR season, 2016/17, had the third most penalties awarded (106) at the rate of 0.28 per match, and interestingly that number leapt way down in 2019/20 to a total of 92 penalties awarded (well, it went down unless you’re Manchester United, who won 14 total penalties, or 15% of the total). The amount of penalties awarded varies a lot, usually hovering in recent seasons between the 70s and the 90s, though the current rate of penalty awards is on the high end.

Since the podcast was released on November 19th, the rate has decreased slightly to 0.46 penalties awarded per match (four awarded in 19 subsequent games), with the overall rate still above the 2006/07 rate (though we may well see a long-term decrease as the handball rules were adjusted mid-season to bring down the alarming number of early season penalties, it’s unclear as yet).

As of the morning of November 30th (so before the two games today kicked off), Dale Johnson of ESPN has recorded 14 penalties as having been awarded by VAR thus far this season, with half of these awarded for handball infringements. Two saved penalties were retaken due to goalkeeper encroachment, following the new rules this season. Four penalties initially awarded by the center official were overturned through VAR review. Last season Johnson notes that 22 total penalties were awarded by VAR, seven were overturned by VAR, and four penalties were retaken.

So, after under a third of the season has been played, VAR has been more heavily involved than in last year’s league season. This involvement might be due in part to the initial handball rules, but possibly not limited to that reason (not all of the handball penalties that were awarded wouldn’t have been awarded under previous rules, so they cannot be wholly discounted).

Brighton & Hove Albion’s Pascal Gross scores the Equiliser from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Liverpool at American Express Community Stadium on November 28, 2020 in Brighton, EnglandPhoto by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images
Brighton & Hove Albion’s Pascal Gross scores the Equiliser from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Liverpool at American Express Community Stadium on November 28, 2020 in Brighton, England.

The net result? We’ve seen a lot of penalties thus far. Is that what we as fans (and players) actually want?

I’m not sure it is. Penalties, which are chances on goal estimated as having an expected goal (xG) rate of 0.76, are possibly made even easier to score with the aforementioned goalkeeper encroachment rules, and, as argued by the panel on the Football Clichés podcast, perhaps even more so without the pressure and expectations that a crowd creates. I tend to agree with their outlook: that penalties “should feel relatively rare, and it should feel like a proportional punishment given that you’re effectively giving someone a free shot.”

I wonder if part of our concern with VAR this season is that more penalties isn’t necessarily something fans or players necessarily wanted, even if we haven’t articulated that particular concern consciously.

“But surely ‘more goals’ is a good thing,” you might say in response to me here. That’s certainly a valid position! Many feel more goals would create more excitement. The issue here is that inflated penalty numbers been just one effect of VAR interventions this season — and it turns out that VAR might create more penalty goals, but actually decrease the number of open play goals. How? Well…

Offside Measurements: A Complex Nightmare

There are lots of popularly-held complaints about how VAR uses crosshair technology to measure precise player positioning to determine onside/offside when a goal is scored or penalty awarded. While many argue the veracity of the lines from certain body parts, this is generally an invalid critique: the precision of these lines is not in doubt, as the crosshair technology used is based on modelling rather than on the image fans see (which may use a camera angle that doesn’t line up with the modelling technology).

Writing in August 2019, The Athletic’s Jordan Campell predicted a lot of the image-based controversy we see on Twitter after seemingly every match day:

“It takes an hour to calibrate the cameras before kick-off. Camera operators are dispatched to every stadium to ‘map’ the dimensions of the pitch from a multitude of angles, thus generating a model for each pitch, which is then loaded into the VAR monitor on matchday . . . ‘crosshair’ technology will ensure offside decisions are indisputable, even if there is no perfect angle [to judge by eye].”

What does this mean? It means the precision of measurement is accurate, even if the “eye test” tells us it’s not.

But there is an issue with such precise measurement, right?

Yes, it’s not much ado about nothing — but it’s actually a frame rate issue in terms of how the officials choose the correct frame to analyze for offside by judging when the pass has “begun.” In other words, the issue is in how we distinguish between when a player has the ball at feet and when they have begun the pass.

Per Dale Johnson of ESPN, this stems from the fact that often the correct frame does not exist, because that precise moment is between the frames officials have to select from. This does not mean that the decision is always incorrect, but rather that the margin of error is not consistent

in all situations.

The result? While the measurements may be correct, they may measure the wrong moment. As such, there’s no certainty in every case.

Of course, it does not necessarily follow that this is unfair, as all teams are affected here, and over the course of the season it should even out.

If unfairness isn’t the issue, perhaps it lies in outcomes and notions of the spirit of the game. Though the use of “advantage” isn’t noted as often in the wording of the law as many think, the use of VAR in this way seems to narrow the definition of “level” to margins that are invisible to the naked eye. In other words, if we’re judging so precisely that it takes minutes with technology, how can players be expected to see these margins themselves while running at pace in a match?

Because these margins are invisible to the naked eye, the notion of players being “level” basically no longer exists — or exists more by luck than by careful play, because a player cannot be certain of it.

Often the outcome of these precise offside measurements is to punish alert attackers, who lean forward ever-so-slightly before the defenders do, as the attacker has seen the situation milliseconds before the defender has become awake to it. Smart runs, disguised passes, quick reactions: these are limited under VAR. (This does not mean all offside offenses fall under this category: against Brighton Liverpool’s Sadio Mané was clearly offside having run early in a set play; Mohamed Salah, however, was “punished for his alertness” in this framing of the use of precise measurements).

And these smart situations are a large part of the beauty of the game in my opinion — in its decisiveness, intelligence, poetry. Per Dale Johnson, thus far this season VAR has ruled 13 goals that were awarded on the pitch as “No Goal” after a VAR offside review. It has awarded two that were incorrectly flagged as offside. Last season VAR ruled out 34 awarded goals for missed offside and awarded just eight that were incorrectly flagged.

Though there are arguments, we should take the measurements as largely correct. But do we want this? Do we want attackers punished for the very slight “advantage” they gain on their opponents because of their own alertness?

Do we want a potential increase in penalties and a decrease in open play goals?

Of course, the goals themselves are not the only issues fans (and players) have focused on.

Goal Celebrations — And Celebrating the Saved Penalty

The outcomes of this VAR review process (for infringements in the lead-up to goals) for players and fans means that goals cannot be celebrated in the same way, whether something looks close or not: we find ourselves never knowing whether we missed something Stockley Park will catch.

This is not limited to goals, of course, as David Marshall’s penalty save for Scotland over the international break has shown:

The keeper makes a huge save to send his country through, and instead of celebrating with his teammates as he would have in times past, he runs to the referee to make sure VAR did not record him as “encroaching” per the 2020/21 rules. Only after receiving confirmation did he turn to celebrate with his countrymen.

The success is still very real, but the joy certainly does feel postponed, lessened, and sterilized. The immediacy is gone, as players and fans now must wait to be certain of their celebrations.

Does this really matter? You get to celebrate (or not) in the end, surely?

I would argue it does. One of the great joys of the sport is its collective emotion, in how you feel at one with thousands — millions — of others across the globe. With VAR, the emotion is delayed, and more conscious. Celebrating a goal VAR provides is less spontaneous; having celebrated a goal VAR removes is deflating.

It might be “fairer” with VAR (this is arguable, I know — but let’s just leave the fairness question aside here), but are the trade-offs worth it? What is it that we want from the sport, exactly?

This is all further complicated by the mystery surrounding VAR’s protocols and how decisions are arrived upon.

Transparency, Consistency, and Accountability

Of course, this conversation is complicated ever further by the subjective applications of VAR: how certain tackles are reviewed as “clear and obvious” while others aren’t, how the VAR process works (most of the explanations I have found on the VAR are hidden behind paywalls), and how decisions are made on the day.

These are important elements that I didn’t touch on above, focusing instead on how VAR impacts how goals are scored and celebrated, though the above issues are complicated by instances of inconsistency on the part of officials, and underscored by a lack of transparency during and after the fact.

That VAR is imperfect in how its processes are communicated is clear. We knew this when fans were in the ground: at Anfield replays are not played, and often fans rush to the concourse to see what’s being reviewed on interior screens if they want to be as informed as TV viewers, for example. It’s possible, though, that our issues with VAR have been exacerbated this season by our own isolation.

Fans in Anfield watch the VAR review process on screens in the concourse on December 29th 2019 following a Liverpool goal — which was subsequently ruled NO HANDBALL. Fans in their seats did not see the imagesMari Lewis
Fans in Anfield watch the VAR review process on screens in the concourse on December 29th 2019 following a Liverpool goal — which was subsequently ruled NO HANDBALL. Fans in their seats did not see the images

I’ve watched most Liverpool games alone on my couch in 2020/21, which in itself limits the possibilities of celebrations (in bars and in the ground there’s screaming and hugging; now there’s just an individual shout), an effect compounded by VAR-related uncertainty.

All of these things impact each other, and there’s no one answer on “how we should improve VAR.” While better training for Premier League officials would be useful, to be sure, outcomes related to training of existing officials or recruitment of new ones will be unlikely to have marked effects in the short term. Rule changes and changes in application will have more short-term impacts, and so I suggest we as fans consider what we want out of this sport we love, and how we should lobby the powers that be to achieve these goals.

It’s unlikely VAR is going away; how would you like to improve it? Comment below!

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